Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 25/01/2021

Simulating civil society: The case of the Beirut Port explosion

The following report has been prepared for PAXsims by Nadya Hajj, Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Wellesley College. She has a new book, Networked Refugees: Palestinian Reciprocity and Remittances in the Digital Age (University of California Press) coming out in Fall 2021. 

In the Fall 2020 academic semester I launched into teaching a remote digital course,  Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at Wellesley College. The course explores critical issues in the politics of the MENA and draws from the literature in Peace and Justice studies to consider practical strategies for transforming political conflict in different state systems and among different groups across the region.

Specifically, the class is tasked with exploring a variety of violent (terrorism/coups/violent protest) and non-violent strategies (political humor, peaceful protest, civil society groups) vis a vis Curle and Dugan’s (1982) classic model of conflict transformation. The Curle and Dugan model is concerned with how to transform unpeaceful relations into peaceful ones. Unpeaceful relations are ones in which either or both parties are damaged possibly through physical violence but also economic or psychological ones. Like Galtung (1969) suggests, unpeaceful conditions are marked by structural violence, where one’s potential is curtailed due to broader socio-economic forces. In contrast, peaceful spaces are collaborative spaces where people, with the help of others, realize their own potential. When there is a high level of awareness and parity among the suffering and those that might help then you are likely to find peaceful spaces (Dugan and Curle 1982). Awareness refers not only to whether the parties involved know of the suffering of the aggrieved, but also the degree to which parties are aware of its sources and the possibilities for addressing the situation. Parity considers the balance of power among those that are suffering and those that might help.  In latent conflict, the suffering of others, their needs, and potential pathways for remedying them are “hidden” usually because there is a low level of awareness and a great disparity between those suffering and those with control or access to valuable resources (Curle and Dugan 1982). Understanding and deploying strategies that enhance parity and awareness are key learning objectives in my classroom.

Of course, through readings and class Zoom discussions we evaluated the costs and benefits of different strategies. One thing that I noticed is that many people, not just passionate young college students, often argue that bolder (and sometimes) violent strategies are more effective than subtler forms of resistance because they are, theoretically, more likely to raise awareness and tip the balance of power such that communities can transform structural conditions of repression that underpin the suffering of many. Certainly, these bold strategies may bring about dramatic shifts in political systems if they are successful. However, the cost in terms of human suffering when they fail or only partially succeed is often difficult for students to comprehend in the safety of our anodyne classroom setting. I encourage students to consider the human implications when such movements fail and share digital talks, for example, from the few Syrian dissidents that survived prisons in Syria like those of Omar Alshogre. Still, it is hard to teach this perspective shift of theoretical versus human implications of particular strategies through traditional readings and lectures.

Simulations offer a chance to shift perspective and prompt students to learn through experience. It has been found that simulations and game-based learning promote skill acquisition, knowledge retention, attitudinal change, support the understanding of new concepts and ideas, shape behavior, and improve context-based problem solving (Klabber, 2003; Mateas 2003; Prensky 2001; Ricci, Salas, & Cannon-Bowers, 1996). In particular, Stevens and Fisher (2020) find that, “serious games have the capacity to help humanitarian students more deeply understand and critically engage with important issues. Experiential Learning Theory and Situated Learning Theory help explain why this is the case. According to Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), individuals learn most from direct experience, active participation, and visible feedback on the consequences of their actions. Situated Learning Theory (SLT) likewise suggests that people learn better when placed in authentic contexts to perform actions that parallel real world tasks, interacting with others and applying knowledge.” 

In my classroom, I wanted students to experience a shift in perspective that simulations could offer so that they might consider the true costs and benefits of particular conflict transformation strategies in the Middle East. The catastrophic Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020 provided a current and critical real-world case for student learning to do just that. Students were “dropped into” Lebanon just moments after the explosion. The simulation was introduced with a description of what the explosion felt like for residents in Beirut. Borrowing from Jaddaliya’s excellent reporting, I shared:

The date is August 4, 2020 and the time is 6:05pm. The place is Beirut, Lebanon. In the midst of the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic, the Lebanese economy is weakened by a financial meltdown that has wiped out life savings and reduced the purchasing power of most segments of society to mere survival, threatened by the scarcity of food items, and frightened by rising levels of poverty now estimated at fifty percent by the World Bank. Just moments ago an explosion rocked the port of Beirut. 

Sisters Yasmine and Rhola Khayat described the moment of the blast in their Beirut family apartment, “Still gripping my mobile, I felt the floor become jelly as I watched my cat dash maniacally into the furthest corner underneath my bed, not to emerge for a full twenty-four hours. Rola burst into the hallway screaming, “Did you feel the earthquake?” Then the entire house shook, our window screens, false ceilings, and door hinges blowing out. Even the laptop went sailing through the air as plumes of fluorescent pink nitric acid blanketed the sky (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”

Furthermore they shared, “reports began to trickle in that it was the result of sheer negligence—2,750 explosive tons of negligence, epitomizing the abyss that catalyzed the peoples’ collective rage against rampant corruption last October—and all that remains of that chapter. An accidental spark caused by fireworks, they say, catalyzed the ammonium nitrate dumped for years in the port, into an indescribable fireworks display. “Fireworks,” Theodor Adorno writes, ‘are apparitions par excellence.’ The humanitarian crime of neglecting 2,750 tons of explosive materials for six years in the heart of Beirut criminalizes the ineptitude of the government that cost people’s lives, livelihoods, and sense of being, to go up into apparitional smoke (Khayat and Khayat 2020).”

Students were pre assigned groups (4 groups of roughly 5 students each) and instructed with the following tasks: 

Your team constitutes a Lebanese civil society group that just experienced the explosion and your members are knowledgeable of the unfolding crises that precipitated this cataclysmic event. You have also trained in conflict transformation strategies. You are tasked with developing a strategy that transforms this catastrophic moment of suffering into a path forward that realizes greater justice and peace for Lebanon. You must use your skill set and share your strategy (an executive summary and a power point presentation) with other groups. Your plan will be assessed by other civil society groups (i.e. classmates) and tough to please outside experts (i.e. Prof. Hajj and several Wellesley alumnae currently working in the policy, humanitarian, and think tank sphere in America and the Middle East).

Students were incredibly creative in crafting civil society group names, logos, and even websites. They did extensive research on community needs and existing resources available to communities in Beirut. They were conscientious of the need to develop horizontal and lateral relationships among sectarian groups, cognizant of deep histories of mistrust rooted in the decades long civil war. One group contacted a startup tech company that provides mobile WiFi units in disaster zones (the company has already piloted projects in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria) to assess the possibility of adapting technologies to various neighborhoods in Beirut. They crafted superb power points and generated well-argued and clearly stated executive summaries. Students spoke of their strategies with professionalism and compassion. They were self-aware about the potential limits and pitfalls of their plans. I was truly astounded at their teamwork and commitment in the midst of a difficult remote semester during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Upon reflection, I believe the simulation went well for three main reasons:

  • I led the class through a variety of readings and lectures in the weeks prior to the simulation that provided a strong base of book knowledge about Lebanon’s political history and the theoretical arguments for how and why social capitol and civil society groups work to transform communities toward more peaceful situations. Students had a solid foundation from which they could iterate and create.
  • Prior to the simulation, students interacted with a Wellesley alumna from Lebanon that is pursuing her PhD in advanced spatial mapping and recently co-founded a civil society organization called “OpenMapLebanon.” She gave insight into what it was like in Lebanon during and after the explosion- from sweeping broken shards of glass to using her anger to mobilize others for justice. She spent almost two hours of class time providing real time knowledge of what is happening in Lebanon and fielded questions. Her presence and participation created a more authentic context for the simulation to unfold.
  • Finally, students were given tough but constructive feedback from Wellesley alumnae working in related policy and think tank fields in America and the Middle East. 

Students left the simulation feeling like they had a firm grasp of Lebanese politics, knowledge of specific historic events, and most critically, a sobering view of the “real world” benefits and drawbacks of using civil society groups to transform conflict and injustice. In a final project evaluation, one student shared: “Working with my teammates in a safe but high stress time limited situation forced me to really consider efficient, resilient, and realistic solutions to an emergency crisis. It was fun to work creatively with others and to stress test all these theories we encountered in readings. Having tough outside feedback from alumnae working in the real world made me feel like it was a realistic assessment of our projects. I don’t think I will ever forget the assignment.” Though the preparation and run time of the simulation meant students did not get to all the topics one could study about the MENA region, I firmly believe the students left with a renewed perspective and lifelong learning experience that will inform their knowledge of the Middle East and conflict transformation strategies for many years to come.

Nadya Hajj

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